Perdue vetoes rewrite of Racial Justice Act

Bill gutted law allowing death-row inmates to try to convert their sentences to life in prison without parole by using statistical proof of racial bias. It isn’t clear if the House has enough votes to override Perdue’s veto.

cjarvis@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2012 

— Gov. Bev Perdue on Thursday vetoed the bill that would have undermined the Racial Justice Act, the 2009 law that allows death-row inmates to try to convert their sentences to life in prison without parole by using statistical proof of racial bias in their trials.

“As long as I am governor, I will fight to make sure the death penalty stays on the books in North Carolina,” Perdue said in a statement released late in the afternoon. “But it has to be carried out fairly – free of prejudice.”

Republicans have portrayed the bill as a fix to the Racial Justice Act, but in fact it severely restricts the use of statistics, rendering them useless in most cases. Democrats call it an outright repeal of the law.

This bill was the General Assembly’s second attempt to get rid of the Racial Justice Act, which the state’s prosecutors vehemently oppose. Last year Perdue vetoed the earlier bill. The Senate overrode the veto, and has the votes to do it again last year, but the House couldn’t muster the three-fifths majority needed.

This time, however, the House passed the bill 73-47. It needs only 72 votes to reach the three-fifths needed to override a veto if all members are present.

As with several bills last year, five conservative Democrats broke ranks with their party. But one of them, Rep. Tim Spear of Creswell, has been absent because of family health issues. That means if all members of the House are present, all four of the renegade Democrats would have to vote with Republicans to override the veto.

Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat from Elizabeth City, said Thursday after the session that he would likely vote to override. “We came up with a fair compromise,” he said of this year’s bill.

Owens said he supports capital punishment, and the true purpose of the Racial Justice Act was to bring executions to a halt.

Another member of the Democratic “gang of five,” Rep. Jim Crawford of Oxford, wouldn’t say how he will vote.

This is Perdue’s 17th veto. Eight of them have been overridden by the Legislature.

Perdue in her veto message said the Racial Justice Act was a historic piece of legislation that received national praise. She called it “a positive and long overdue step to make sure racism does not infect the way the death penalty is administered.

“Last year, Republicans in the General Assembly tried – and failed – to take North Carolina backwards by passing a bill that would have undone the Racial Justice Act,” she said. “This year’s Senate Bill 416 is not a ‘compromise bill’; it guts the Racial Justice Act and renders it meaningless.”

In a joint statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis said:

“While Gov. Perdue may claim to support the death penalty, her veto proves she’s in lock-step with the leftist elements of her party who want to abolish it. She has a duty to uphold public safety and preserve justice for the families of victims murdered in the most heinous crimes.”

They promised to work with Democrats to override.

Perdue’s veto was praised by Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and the N.C. NAACP.

In a statement, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation said, “We call on members of the N.C. General Assembly to demonstrate the same principled leadership and commitment to justice for all citizens regardless of race by upholding the governor’s veto.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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